If you took just the players that the Yankees have acquired this winter more because they could than because they needed them, you would have the beginnings of a pretty good team. In Nick Johnson, they've added one of baseball's great on-base threats; in Curtis Granderson, they've added one of the game's best center fielders and now, with Javier Vazquez, they've added one of baseball's better pitchers. This is fair enough -- the sport has rules and the Yankees play within them. Still, you can understand the groans rising in 27 other cities right now.
Vazquez's strengths and weaknesses are well-known. By most of the usual measures of a pitcher's quality, he's something near an ace. He's extremely durable, as only Livan Hernandez has pitched more innings in the aughts. He has terrific stuff -- a lively fastball, two breaking pitches and a tricky change --and uses it effectively, ranking 13th among active pitchers in strikeouts per inning, ninth in walks per inning and eighth in strikeout-to-walk ratio. In theory he should be in the second tier among major league starters, not ranking with Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum but in the group behind, with the likes of Josh Beckett and Mark Buehrle.
In practice, Vazquez has been something else, however. In a good year, such as 2009, when he went 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA for the Braves, he's a Cy Young candidate, but you can't tell when those years are going to come. The problems are that he's almost too willing to throw a strike, leading to a lot of home runs, and that he seems to have issues pitching with men on base.
Over his career he has allowed a .697 OPS with the bases empty and a .773 mark with men on; by way of comparison, the major league averages last season were .741 and .763. Even in an off year he's a cinch to pitch 200 innings with a league average ERA, and that has a lot of value, but both pitch by pitch and year by year he's as frustrating as any pitcher in baseball, because you always have the sense that he should be more than he is.
Just because of his past there, people in New York are going to be eager to be frustrated with him. In 2003, just as he seemed to have emerged as an ace in Montreal, the Yankees traded three good prospects for him -- Johnson among them -- with visions of Vazquez anchoring their staff for years to come. All started well, but after a horrific second half of 2004 in which he ran up a 6.70 ERA and a disastrous appearance in the final game of that year's legendary ALCS -- he walked five of the 13 Red Sox he faced -- Vazquez was exiled to Arizona.
He was never quite the scapegoat that Kevin Brown was for the Yankees' great collapse in that series, but he was close. Also, putting a pitcher whose worst flaw is that he gives up a lot of home runs into the launching pad that is new Yankee Stadium seems an inherently bad idea. All of this can lead a reasonable person to ask a simple question: Can Vazquez win with the Yankees?
His past with the team seems irrelevant from here; if he wasn't an injured pitcher in the second half of 2004 he did an extraordinarily convincing impression of one, and anyone who points to that bad run as evidence that he isn't mentally or emotionally fit for Bronx pressure has to explain why he pitched so well in the first half of that year.
As to the new yard and his pitching style, it seems a minimal concern. Vazquez was effective for two years and excellent for one with the White Sox, whose stadium is at least as good a home run park as the Yankees'. He has proved that he can pitch well in this kind of environment, and if he doesn't do so it won't be because of the park.
In the end this looks like a great acquisition for the Yankees, and it is -- better, in all likelihood, than Boston's signing of John Lackey. At worst Vazquez is going to make his customary 32 starts and pitch into the seventh inning in most of them, which is far more than a team with this offense needs from its fourth starter. At best he could give the team a second true ace to match CC Sabathia. Either way the rotation now matches up extremely well with any in the league, and you could certainly make a case that it's better than Boston's or Chicago's.
All of this keys in on one half of the deal, but of course there was another. The Braves got, it should be said, a better package for Vazquez than the Phillies did for Cliff Lee last week. The most important player they acquired is right-hander Arodys Vizcaino, who, like any other teenage pitcher, is liable to break his team's heart but who has, by all accounts, a serious chance at becoming a star.
Melky Cabrera is a bad fit for the Braves, as they already have a crowded outfield and a very good center fielder, and most of Cabrera's value is in his ability to provide vaguely average offense and solid defense in center, but at least he's a valuable player who gives the team a lot of options. The third player, lefty Mike Dunn, is the proverbial live arm.
For the Braves, the deal will be judged a success or failure based on what they do with the roughly $8 million that they freed up by moving Vazquez. They have enough starting pitching to sustain the loss, so if they can add a needed bat with that money and trade a spare outfielder to fill another need, they'll likely come out ahead. If not, they'll have missed an opportunity. But judged in its own right, this is a fair trade.
The last element of the deal is that with Cabrera gone, the Yankees are suddenly short an outfielder. There's a good case for starting reserve Brett Gardner in center -- he's a top defender with enough speed and on-base skill to not be a total cipher offensively, and one gets the sense that he has a higher gear in him. Still, Gardner is better suited to be an excellent reserve than a mildly plausible starter, and there is a left fielder who has done pretty well for the Yankees over the years available on the trade market.
Might the Vazquez trade bring Johnny Damon back to the Bronx as he makes his run toward a 3,000th hit and status as perhaps the least impressive outfielder in the Hall of Fame? You have to think that the odds are improving. After all, the Yankees may not need him, but over the last few weeks they've added a lot that they don't really need.